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Book review: The Art of Not Being Governed

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th December 2010


From a double book review in The American Interest, which also reviews Benedict Anderson’s 2006 book, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination.

Here, we excerpt from the review of:

* Book: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. by James C. Scott. Yale University Press, 2009

Henry Farrell:

“The Art of Not Being Governed fits together nicely with its predecessor, Seeing Like a State, as a landmark work of early 21st-century social science. The two books have complementary arguments; The Art of Not Being Governed might equally well have been titled The People States Can’t See. It is, first and foremost, a history of escape from the state, chronicling the stories of the various peoples who have fled to highlands, swamps and archipelagos where the state cannot easily reach them. Scott’s particular object of study is “Zomia”, the mountain marches of Southeast Asia that stretch from southern China down to Laos and northern Thailand, taking in parts of Burma and eastern India. Scott calls Zomia a “shatter zone” that has actively resisted incorporation into the various states around it and served as a refuge for peoples fleeing those states.

For Scott, the relationship between states and the peoples fleeing them is cyclical. Pre-modern states in this region needed people desperately, not only to replenish their own populations after famine, floods or war, but to mitigate the constant loss of people fleeing their rule. Nor could they rely on natural population growth, given the ever-present threat of natural or manmade catastrophe. Hence states constantly warred on one another to replenish their populations; wars and slave-taking expeditions were very nearly synonymous. Hence, too, states continually worried about how to prevent the flight of their subjects.

This leads Scott to a theory of historical change quite at odds with the usual narrative, in which states gradually grow to assimilate and civilize the barbarians around them. Scott argues that states create their own barbarians. The peoples in the “uncivilized” zones around them are very often their own former subjects or those subjects’ descendants. History is not a steady march toward the joys and comforts of civilized life.

Until very recently, it was instead a cycle in which precarious states continually hemorrhaged their people and tried to stanch their wounds by taking slaves from other states or from the shatter zones across their borders. Most failed. The jungles of Southeast Asia are littered with ruins that mark the systole and diastole of the state-building process; they are the remnants of states and statelets that fought to survive and lost.

Thus, Scott’s anarchical history is a history of those who have fled state control to build their lives around flight, invisibility and illegibility. They cultivate crops that are easy to conceal. They form tribal units that Scott compares to jellyfish—formless and liable to dissolution if outside powers try to grasp them too tightly. Their social relations are based on kinship connections that are for the most part fictional and easily adaptable to changing circumstance. Rather than hewing to a single identity imposed upon them by the state, they may shift from one ethnic identity to another, depending on which seems most advantageous under a particular set of circumstances.

Scott even speculates that such deliberate “barbarian” anarchists systematically avoid the written word for fear of providing the state with a lever it could use to control them. He argues, too, that many of the peoples who succeeded in hiding from the state adopted relatively egalitarian social structures. History suggests that their lives were never idyllic: Some groups preyed upon others, often in order to provide slaves for the lowlands. Nonetheless, they had their attractions. For Scott, the implicit equation under which state subjects alone consider themselves civilized is an ideological confection of the lowlands intended to flatter their inhabitants’ prejudices, not an objective description of any kind.

Scott’s work is partly synthetic. Its cyclical view of history owes something to the great medieval Arab political theorist Ibn Khaldun and to his most astute modern disciple, the aforementioned Ernest Gellner. However, it is largely original in its broad sweep and its particular theory of the relationship between the stateless and the state. As with most such broad sweeps, however, it is open to criticism. The historian Victor Lieberman argues that there is little evidence to support its account of great movements back and forth between the state and the inaccessible regions surrounding it, and that its history is one-dimensional.

Highland peoples have their own stories, entirely apart from their relationship or non-relationship with the states in the valleys and plains beneath them. Nonetheless, even when it is wrong, The Art of Not Being Governed errs magnificently. Scott has expressed derision for political scientists who spend their lives answering trivial questions with approved technical tools, opting instead for large ambitious explanations of world-secular forces. Even if his own explanation does not explain as much as it aspires to, it casts patterns of history into sharp relief that would otherwise languish in obscurity.

If Scott admires the anarchism of stateless people, their deliberate refusal to be governed, what prospects does he see for anarchism today? Little or none. Technological changes mean that zones that states were once incapable of penetrating have now become accessible. The bureaucratic state has the machinery to keep track of and categorize its subjects, rendering them too “legible” to hide or flee so easily. There are few ungoverned zones left in the world.

Counterintuitively, individuals today are far less free to choose their own identity than they used to be; they must adapt instead to the identities that states impose upon them. Where Scott’s account of all this is not tragic it is elegiac. He admires the efforts of stateless peoples to use, for example, millenarian religions to mobilize against common external threats. However, he does not seem to hold out much hope that they will succeed.

Scott’s message, if a message it is, is that the possibilities of anarchy are fundamentally limited by the modern state. We cannot get away from the state, so the best we can do is to chasten and moderate it through the institutions of representative democracy. This speaks well to the incoherencies of modern anarchists. It is difficult to imagine anarchism succeeding for the simple reason that there is no reasonable prospect that the state will wither away. The inherent vagueness of anarchism, its frequent unwillingness to articulate and interrogate its own goals and its methodologies directly, and its sometime elevation of mere action over the calculable political results of those actions are all part of the implicit tribute anarchism pays to its enemy. Anarchists even struggle to persuade themselves that they would want to live in a truly stateless society, let alone to persuade the vast majority of their fellow citizens to do so.”

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One Response to “Book review: The Art of Not Being Governed”

  1. hruaia Says:

    The art of not being govern is one of the most interesting books i’ve ever read in my whole life. however, i’ve got one problem with the term “Zomia”. The term is coined by Dutch social scientist William Van Schendel after his field work in India’s north-east. he actually borrow the term from the Mizo (some called themselves Zomi, Chin, Zo, Zhou etc) tribal of North East India. Since, i belong to this tribal group and i’m sure zomia is not a Mizo/Zomi term at all. Rather a corrupt form of Mizo/Zomi…to be precise, European mispronunciation of the Mizo language..

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